Office Hours: The Guide to Nailing Every Interview Question, Every Time

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Hours spent researching different jobs? Check!

Countless applications submitted? Check!

Finally scored an interview with an exciting startup? Check!


Now’s the time when you really need to prepare. The interview is not the time to merely rehash what’s in your cover letter or resume. Instead, this is your opportunity to highlight your previous experiences and explain how you will leverage the skills you gained from them in this job. To do this, you need to understand what success means in the role and be prepared to draw explicit links between those and your own experiences.

Of course, you’ll go into the interview knowing the basics about the company and what they do — you’ve obviously spent plenty of time poring over their website and social media accounts. Beyond that, to truly position yourself as the must have candidate for the role, you have to figure out what they really want. This means understanding what the people you’ll be meeting with individually want and what the company as a whole sees as important.

First, find out who will be interviewing you. If they don’t tell you or send a meeting invite, politely inquire. You want to know this info to understand these folks’ roles and how you might work together. If you’re a candidate for a customer success role and interviewing with the Head of Business Development, she’ll likely be interested in finding out if you’ll make her job of selling to new and existing clients harder or easier. Come prepared with answers and anecdotes that speak to your ability to uncover what clients want and manage those relationships.

Next, spend time going over the job description thoroughly. For each bullet point describing the job’s responsibilities, come up with an anecdote or example from your previous experiences that would be relevant. Beyond that, pay attention to repeated words or phrases. If more than one bullet point mentions things like being organized, accurate, and precise, you’ll know that this is a role that mandates paying attention to details. If you see themes around flexibility and speed, this is probably a job that’s going to want someone who just gets things done and doesn’t agonize over perfection.

The point here is to walk into the interview with your professional story tailored to the needs of this company and this job.

You know you’ll spend most of the interview answering questions about what you’ve done, what you can do, and what you bring to the table. It’s also howyou answer those questions that will prove to this startup that you’re the right fit for their growing team.

We advise our Fellows to follow the STAR method and answer every question like this —

  • Situation: what was the specific situation or event?
  • Task: what did you need to get done?
  • Action: what did you do?
  • Result: what was the impact?

The STAR method can take an answer from “I planned my club’s annual bake sale” to “My club needed to raise money for a new project (situation) so we decided to host a bake sale (task). I coordinated 10 volunteers, secured the space on campus, and promoted the event on social media (action). We raised over $1500 and signed up 12 new club members (result). This was two times what we raised the year before and made this the most successful bake sale in club history.”

Framing your answers in this way puts what you’ve done in context for the interviewer. It tells them not just what you did, but why it was important and how your work impacted the organization. This makes it easier for the interviewer to connect the dots between your past performance and what they can expect from you as a member of their team.

Go back to that list of relevant activities and experiences you created. Now, practice describing those activities using the STAR method. Sprinkle in some phrases that speak to the company values you gleaned from the job description. Peppering in things like “I managed all of the logistics in a detailed spreadsheet” or “I got it done in half the time” can be a great way to signal that you already think and act like the rest of the team.

You’ve been answering questions like a STAR and have a sense of what the company thinks is important. But what do you do when you have a perfect example, let’s say of your ability to prioritize, but no one asks you about it directly?

You listen closely, ask the right questions, and make sure to work it in.

For that last part of the interview, typically five to ten minutes of a half hour interview, you’ll likely get the chance to ask the hiring manager questions yourself. Come prepared and ask questions that will really help you learn more about the company, the role, and what success looks like there. This will give you the opportunity to naturally reconfirm your fit.

Continuing the previous example, a question to the hiring manager like “what do you expect to be the biggest source of frustration in this role?” creates the perfect setup to speak to your stellar prioritization skills. Answer with something like “sounds like being able to prioritize multiple deadlines and competing interests is going to be crucial for this job. Is that fair?” If you can get an affirmative response, that might be the right segue to mention your past example, “as council lead of my college’s Student Government, I was able to work across 8 different committees to make sure the annual activities budget was allocated fairly. I had to balance all of their needs and priorities, and I’d bring that same ability to this role.”

Remember: an interview is a chance to have a real conversation, not purely a sales pitch. Make sure your responses make sense in the moment and sound natural; interviewers can generally tell when a candidate is being authentic versus using every answer to hard sell themselves. If you’re not asked about a particular skill set and can’t naturally work it in, let it go. It might not be as important to the role as you thought it was.

Despite your best efforts to research and prepare, you might eventually get stumped by an interview question. Perhaps they asked a more technical question about a piece of software. Or maybe they asked a relatively simple one that just caught you off guard. It happens to the best of us. No one is perfect and a reasonable hiring manager shouldn’t fault you too much, as long as you handle it gracefully.

If you’re truly stumped by a question, resist the urge to flub your way through a response. Instead, admit it and reframe. Turn it into an opportunity to show your grit and resilience. “Actually, I’m not sure about that, but I’m not one to pretend I have all the answers when I don’t. If I ran into this situation at work, I’d consult these resources for help…”

If you just answered poorly, give the answer you should have at the next opportunity. If it comes to you later in the interview, simply go back. “Earlier, you asked me about a time I’d failed, I’ve actually thought of a better example. Could I briefly share that with you now?” If, like many of us, you don’t think of the perfect response until you’ve already left, simply include it in your post-interview thank you note“Yesterday, you’d asked me about my most challenging leadership experience. The question really stuck with me and my role as captain of my volunteer voter registration team is a better example than the one I gave. In that role, I…”

Self-awareness is a crucial skill to success at a startup. Your willingness to admit your human frailties is actually a positive in this context.

Follow these steps and you’ll put your best foot forward in your interview!

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